• April 13, 2015

Portraits From the Forbidden Priesthood of Women

The Roman Catholic Church prohibits women from being ordained. Canon law 1024 states that, “A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly.” In 2002, a movement now called Womenpriests defied church decree and ordained seven women on the Danube River in Germany. Since then, over 200 women worldwide have been “ordained” or are training for “ordination” in the Womenpriests movement.

In 2013 Italian photographer Giulia Bianchi set out to document the lives of some of these women. I corresponded with Bianchi over email and asked her about her experiences photographing Womenpriests and those they serve.

NOTE: The following images depict Womenpriests as well as the men and women who they have served.

Picture of woman dancing in living room
Bridget Mary Meehan, a Roman Catholic Womanbishop, dances in her living room in Washington, D.C.

JANNA DOTSCHKAL: How did you discover this story? What made you interested in photographing religious women?

GIULIA BIANCHI: I am a feminist. I really felt the need to reach out to women teachers who were examples of wisdom. I sent many letters throughout the United States: I wrote to radical feminist philosophers, women in politics, and some religious figures. In February of 2013, I was invited by Diane Dougherty, an Irish-American woman in her 70s, to visit her community of “wandering Catholics.” She defined herself as a Roman Catholic “priest” even though the Vatican says that this is theologically impossible. She told me she was working with LGBT youth.

Since I was familiar with the Catholic religion, I was intrigued by this paradox. I learned that she was a former nun and that she had been excommunicated. I was disinterested in the affairs of the church, but I was interested in her and her rebellion toward the church.

Picture of woman twirling in woods
Diane Dougherty in Atlanta, Georgia

JANNA: How did you find these women?

GIULIA: What was supposed to be a short visit to the U.S. became an adventure. From March until June I went on a road trip with Diane from Atlanta to Kentucky. I got in touch with more women. I went to Chicago, then Washington, D.C. Diane opened up a whole world of contacts and experiences for me.

I’ve met more than 70 Roman Catholic Womenpriests across the U.S. In February, I went to Colombia for one month, and I’m planning to spend this summer in Austria and Germany and eventually photograph the ordination of new Womenbishops in the U.S. in September.

Picture of woman sitting on stairs
Mercedes has been a mentor to future Womanpriest Blanca Cecilia Santana Cortés for 20 years. Mercedes runs a missionary organization to help female victims of violence in Buenaventura, Colombia.

JANNA: Where do the women receive training if ordination is not technically allowed?

GIULIA: Most of them are ordained through an organization called Roman Catholic Womenpriests. It is organized as a circle with no hierarchical leadership. It offers a seminary program of two years that includes feminist and liberation theology.

Picture of woman standing against brush
Cheryl Bristol at the annual reunion of Roman Catholic Womenpriests in Washington, D.C., 2013

JANNA: Do any of the women’s stories stand out in particular? What surprised you the most about the women you met?

GIULIA: My last trip to Colombia was in February 2015, and there I met Blanca Cecilia Santana Cortés, a candidate for priesthood, who left an impression on me.

Blanca works especially with mujeres de la prostitution—sex workers—and with Afro-Colombian women that live in extreme poverty. She doesn’t provide for them like a charity would do—she educates them to be free individuals, to fight for their rights, to be feminists. She teaches them how to work and provide for their families. She doesn’t teach them to be Christian, but to be like Christ, and to follow the Gospel’s teachings.

Future Womanpriest Blanca Cecilia Santana Cortés on her property in Jumilito, Colombia.
Future Womanpriest Blanca Cecilia Santana Cortés on her property in Jumilito, Colombia

JANNA: Why did you choose this style of portraiture for the project?

GIULIA: I wanted to create a sort of spontaneous “family album” feel to the portraits to make them accessible to every viewer in an intimate way.

I’m often using complex lighting and a large format camera, but I want the photographs to look personal and naive. I want the images to be about the women, their personalities, and their femininity.

Picture of woman in pink dress
Selina is a nurse who contracted tuberculosis and recovered. She has been receiving assistance from future Womanpriest Blanca Cecilia Santana Cortés.

JANNA: How did you get the women to pose and relax for you?

GIULIA: I spend a lot of time with them. I’m very patient and I talk a lot about everything I’m doing and why I’m doing it. They don’t like being in front of a camera, but they like being with me.

Picture of pregnant woman in garden
Sandra Torres stands near a coca plant in Popayan, Colombia. Torres is a former sex worker, pregnant with her third child. Blanca Cecilia Santana Cortés is helping her build a new life.

JANNA: What was it like to shadow Womenpriests?

GIULIA: When I visit and live with Womenpriests I’m not really behaving as a journalist. I interview them a lot, but usually it is more of a dialogue. Sometimes I photograph them a lot and sometimes very little. I listen to my intuition.

They taught me what it means to be a prophet today, how to change yourself and the world, and what is worth believing. I was shown a model of an alternative world, one where everyone is working with love. A world where if there is no justice for the smallest and the weakest, then there’s no justice at all.

They all asked me if I was still Catholic, and when I said that I wasn’t, some of them sobbed: “The church really lost your generation.” None of them tried to convert me back—they had no labels or boxes for spirituality.

Picture of woman with son
Kalymary Betancuru of Buenaventura, Colombia, has skin cancer, and her only son has been paralyzed for a year. She’s fighting with the government for a disability pension. She is receiving help from Blanca Cecilia Santana Cortés.

JANNA: What were these women doing before they were ordained?

GIULIA: Many were nuns, others were catechism teachers, chaplains, missionaries, social operators, presidents of nonprofit associations, charities, etc. I would say that they all have impressive resumes and are very highly educated.

Today they are engaged in various fronts: ecology, educating refugees, theology, social justice, missionary work, and building all-inclusive Catholic communities. Few of them are hermits or mystics. Most are working hard to make this society more loving and just.

Picture of woman praying
Alta Jacko prays in her apartment in Chicago, Illinois.

JANNA: What happens if they are excommunicated?

GIULIA: To be excommunicated means they will lose any salary, retirement benefits, housing, or job that they or their relatives might receive from the church. They cannot take the sacraments in most parishes but they can create their own parish. Sometimes this is what they end up doing. Other times, the priesthood is practiced very much like it was in the early church: The liturgy is at home, among families.

Picture of woman in armchair
Maureen Logue McGill at the annual reunion of Roman Catholic Womenpriests in Washington, D.C., in 2013

JANNA: What is the future of this situation? Do you think the church will change its stance?

GIULIA: Many women have told me: “We’re doing this for the future; we’re not going to see a change in our lifetime.” I don’t think this is going to change anytime soon. It’s about power, not beliefs.

JANNA: What emotions or thoughts does this project evoke for you?

GIULIA: You know, when you meet the best people in your life, you want to be like them.

See more of Giulia Bianchi’s work on her website, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

There are 12 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Janet Sunderland
    November 20, 2015

    The Independent Catholic Church, Church of Antioch, with a valid line of succession, has ordained priests since the late 1950s. I was ordained a priest in 1997.
    While I am proud of the women in WomenPriests, it’s also useful to recognize valid ordinations of women in the Catholic tradition, beyond the borders of WomenPriests. Many of us have been serving communities for a long time.
    Bishop Herman Adrian Spruit was the first Independent Catholic bishop who formed a church specifically so that women would be ordained. As you might imaging, he took a lot of heat from other Independent Catholic bishops.
    If you want more information, search Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch.


    Bishop Janet Sunderland

  2. Kira
    July 25, 2015

    Nausicaa, I am living in California and have been working in Georgia on several projects that include Diane. I am making a Portable Cathedral with painted silks, for women priests to create a beautiful space wherever they hold service. Will you be back in GA in October? I would like to meet and promote your work.

  3. Wanda Russell
    June 25, 2015

    Giulia, what you have done so far is exceptionally brilliant in the way you tell the story of women priests. I am proud to call you friend!

  4. Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Paluga
    April 17, 2015

    We all know women are as sacred sacred as men. It is only a matter of time before this recognition will be official. Love.

  5. Sharon
    April 15, 2015

    I belong to a community and our priest is a RCWP. She’s amazing and I feel so blessed to be part of this community. I wish everyone could be touched by the social gifts that women have in their ministry.

  6. Speakable
    April 15, 2015

    The entire vision of Giulia Bianchi will be in the future -of course-,but in the present you should make sure to spread your beliefs towards the church as much as you can ,expand your influence through best-selling books ,blockbusters films and known people ,charity like free-work as a layer or others actvities which are related with plublic service are good ideas to bring some of the future to the present ,and make more lifes feel better through the gospel .

  7. Pam
    April 15, 2015

    Having met several of these priests, I can tell you how called they are to their priesthood. Bless them and their work and I hope the church doe day sees what it is missing by excluding women.

  8. Pastor Austin
    April 14, 2015

    half these women priests in these pictures are not yet even saved.. there names are not yet written in the book of life.. the ones who are, are rebellious, and rebellion is akin to witchcraft, it’s demonic power.. since I am Pastor and I carry the keys to the kingdom, I’ve taken care of it.. can you say brokenness without the strength to recover, they will.. Pastor.

  9. Nausicaa Giulia Bianchi
    April 14, 2015

    Dear Sarah, I’m the photographer that did the work.
    Celibacy is optional. Many women are and have been for a free choice. Others had many children and families.

  10. Sarah
    April 14, 2015

    This is a wonderful piece and these women are inspirational. I would like to know if they have to be celibate like male priests or if they can have families?

  11. Michael Palmer
    April 14, 2015

    Absolutely stunning and compelling images. I hope we get to see much more of Giulia’s work!!!

  12. bwana
    April 13, 2015

    It took the C. church a couple of hundred years to decide there was no physical heaven. It may be that long before they decide women are equal to men… sadly!

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